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In the aftermath of a sudden death, it’s not uncommon to wish we had one last interaction, some inkling of finality or closure before it was too late. This well-intentioned fantasy is borne out like a stunning blow in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, a surreal examination of a parent-child relationship that also raises serious questions about the limits of self determination. As directed by Kevin Young, the current production by Breathe Art Theatre Project creates a world for its characters that fairly burns with anguish.

Jessie (Lisa Melinn) is an adult woman who lives with her mother (Diane Hill) in her isolated country home. Divorced, estranged from her criminally troubled son, confined to the house in part for fear of a possible epileptic fit, she spends her days managing the household and incessantly feeling the weary isolation of a life unlikely to change for the better. The production utilizes a minimal but effective design that capitalizes on this loneliness: Barbie Weisserman’s properties extend little beyond objects that are handled or remarked upon in the script, and Sergio Forest’s tight, sparing illumination follows the players closely, in the absence of anything else to watch. Both are an excellent fit for the marvelous negative-space set (designed by Young); other than some furniture, the house is suggested by a few walls that throw a vanishing point at the upstage bedroom door, appearing far away and somehow final. Indeed, minutes after the play begins, on an otherwise-unremarkable night, Jessie reveals that she plans to commit suicide before the evening is out. The story unfolds in the aftermath of this announcement, as she continues to get her meticulously planned affairs in order and her mother attempts to process the supposed gift of that known last encounter.

The bleakness of the script and surroundings are bravely and capably countered by the masterful performances of the play’s two actors. Melinn’s composure is key to the viewer understanding and accepting her character’s internal logic: Jessie is in better health and spirits than she has been in a decade, yet this same fact helped her finally decide to end her life. Unwavering as Jessie is, her harrowing conviction is patterned with hints of satisfaction, remorse, selfishness, and distress as the spirit of the evening she envisioned proves elusive. Just when the character seems almost too disaffected, however, Melinn peels back the resolve to reveal the anguish of her life, in a scene simply brutal in its efficacy.

In parallel with this captivating character study is the infinitely more dynamic trajectory of Jessie’s mother, handed the impossible directive to not only come to terms with her daughter’s intentions, but also capitalize on the fleeting time they have left. Hill lends calculating precision to her character’s desperation, her thought process manic as she tries every possible tactic to change Jessie’s mind. Her simultaneous maternal need to make her child happy drives the actor to intangible extremes and frequently puts her motives into internal conflict, but Hill is entirely in control of the character. Her intricate thought process reads easily as a book across her face throughout the play’s complex, demanding, uninterrupted ninety minutes.

The performances as a pair are more difficult to parse; mother and daughter are so completely at cross purposes, especially at the outset, that they are rarely allowed to really listen to each other. Even so, the actors work seamlessly together to build a world this painfully void of promise, and the emptiness of their rare connections is as telling as their solitude. ‘night, Mother is hell on the viewer; it is intended to be. This production is notable for making sense of a seemingly implausible premise and for the bitter veracity that makes what happens seem accessible and empathetic, if no less excruciating.


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